Assimilation: a history lesson

By Deborah Hertz, March 27, 2008
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At a recent dinner party, an acquaintance launched a diatribe against the Jewish Councils in Holland during the Holocaust era. His belief was that the root cause of what he called the “collaborationist politics” of the Councils was that too many of their members had chosen a path of “extreme assimilation”; they were unable to resist Nazi schemes because their Jewish identity was so thin. For days, I pondered his accusation. To my mind, his condescending judgment failed to take account of the dire circumstances faced by Jewish leaders in those dark times. Moreover, I felt defensive hearing his harsh critique of the very stance — “extreme assimilation” — which I had sympathetically explored in my new book, How Jews Became Germans.

In the German setting of the early 19th century, even very privileged Jews faced a myriad of pressures to achieve a quick emancipation by baptism. Their noble friends expected the most avant-garde Jews to become “less Jewish”. Nationalist intellectuals at the time created a patriotism which was deeply Lutheran. Moreover, in the leading state of Prussia, policymakers turned against the slow acculturation offered by a reformed Jewish practice, and favoured baptism as the only way to achieve civic emancipation. In a time before massive emigration to America, conversion was one of the rare ways to create a new self in a very rigid society.

Although baptism solved some practical problems, such transformations obviously complicated relationships within families and between friends. Nevertheless, moving forward into the 19th century, ambitious Jewish families were more frequently choosing this future for themselves and for their children. We learn more about how subtle the motives for conversion could be by revisiting the life journey of Lea Salomon Mendelssohn and her husband Abraham.

Abraham was the son of German Jewry’s great intellect and public figure, Moses Mendelssohn. When Moses died in 1786, he left behind a widow and six children. Eventually four of the six children would leave Judaism, two becoming Catholics and two Protestants. Abraham and Lea’s conversion drama was both dramatic and protracted. Their story is especially fascinating because their son Felix and their daughter Fanny were highly talented and visible pianists and composers.

When Abraham was in his early 20s, working as a banking assistant in Paris, his sister Dorothea was in the process of divorcing her Jewish husband. Dorothea’s early marriage to a Jewish merchant, her scandalous divorce and the bitter struggle to sell her literary labours so as to support her child and mate did not turn out to be a very happy mode of emancipation. In 1804, in Paris, Dorothea became a Protestant, and married her lover, the literary scholar and novelist Friedrich Schlegel. In another four years, both of them would become Catholics.

Dorothea’s brother Abraham’s departure from Judaism was much less stormy. When Abraham and Lea fell in love in 1803, Lea was 28, living at home in Berlin, the cultured granddaughter of the uniquely privileged Itzig family. Two years after she met Abraham, Lea’s older brother Jacob converted. Their mother Bella was so outraged that she cut off all contact with him. Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to Hamburg, where Abraham and his older brother Joseph founded their own banking firm. Their children were the beneficiaries of a most rigorous intellectual and artistic training, and were awakened early in the mornings to begin their pedagogic routine.

The new Mendelssohn banking firm flourished in the chaotic situation of the Napoleonic era.

Hamburg then was occupied by the French, but Napoleon’s officials were rather corrupt, and the Mendelssohn brothers made a fortune smuggling spices, coffee, sugar, and tobacco into Germany. Key to their success was their connection to Nathan Rothschild in England, their supplier. Their work was in its way patriotic, because they defied French economic policy. Yet the many artisans and business owners whose livelihood sunk dramatically during the Napoleonic wars resented what seemed the easy money accumulated by these rogue traders and bankers.

After seven years of good fortune, in 1811 the French became serious about enforcing the ban on exports to the Continent. Abraham and Lea fled undercover with their children, and returned to Berlin. Five years later, in 1816, Abraham and Lea baptised their four children, although they remained Jewish for the time being. Lea had been contemplating the question of baptism for a very long time. Seventeen years before, her first cousin Julius Eduard Hitzig had converted. At the time, she remarked in a letter that “it would be a blessing if we could dispense with all this hypocrisy. But given the desire for a more elevated occupation than that of merchant, and the prospect of those many affectionate friendships which induce young people to befriend members of another religious community, there is really no other option.”

Years later, Abraham defended the baptism of the children in a letter to their daughter Fanny. He explained that it was in 1816 that the Prussian state decided to enforce “religious requirements”. He and Lea feared that they could no longer raise their children in a “neutral way”. Abraham was likely referring to a government decree of that year which required that all officials in the Prussian civil service be Christians. In his own life, we see little evidence of political exclusion. On the contrary, just then Abraham was actively involved in local and national politics. Three years before he had been appointed to the Berlin City Council. Moreover, in the very year he and Lea baptised their children, Abraham had represented Prussia in Paris in the final negotiations of the Vienna Congress, which ended the Napoleonic wars.

A closer look suggests career motives for their sons. At this juncture, the parents planned for the sons to pursue careers requiring baptism.

Lea and Abraham’s decision to baptise the children must have given them much pause, considering Lea’s mother Bella’s outrage at her son’s conversion. But any secrecy or discretion about the children’s new religion surely became more burdensome in 1820, when Lea and Abraham moved their family to an apartment in grandmother Bella’s lavish home. Given her ostracism of Lea’s brother Jacob, she and Abraham may have feared that she would cut off the considerable Itzig inheritance if she knew the truth. To safeguard such a secret, they must have kept their family relationships quite separate from their social life with Christian friends. Baptism could not be used to help one socially unless it was known that one was now a Christian.

Six years later, the parents joined their children in the new faith. The moment came in the fall of 1822, when the extended Mendelssohn family was on a grand tour through Switzerland and southern Germany. Their impetus was definitely not the death of Lea’s mother, because Bella remained alive for two more years. Nor is there any evidence of a spiritual impulse. Rather, Abraham’s defence of the decision was always stated in vague secular terms, such as his explanation to Fanny that “we have educated you and your brothers and sisters in the Christian faith because it is the creed of most civilised people today”.

Three days after their baptism, the Mendelssohn party arrived in Weimar, where they visited Johann Goethe. Just days before he arrived with Felix in Weimar, their so-called friend Karl Zelter wrote Goethe that Felix “admittedly” was “the son of a Jew but he is no Jew… for once it really would be eppes rores, the rare event, if a Jewish boy were to become an artist”.

Zelter’s use of Yiddish to make a hostile comment shows the complexity of his feelings toward his

Jewish friends. The irony was that here Zelter was insulting the same Jews whom he was helping, in the language which they refused to speak.

In later years, Abraham quarrelled with Felix about Felix’s continued use of the family name Mendelssohn. In his letter, we glimpse the special burden he felt as his father’s son. Abraham wrote: “a Christian Mendelssohn is an impossibility”. The name Mendelssohn, he reminded Felix, “would always stand for a Judaism in transition”.

He continued: “You can not, you must not carry the name Mendelssohn… A name is like a garment; it has to be appropriate for the time, the use, and the rank, if it is not to become a hindrance and a laughing-stock… There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius. If Mendelssohn is your name, you are ipso facto a Jew.”

Many Jews who listen to the Mendelssohn story today will feel relief at how much has changed since the 19th century. Government policies do not require the ambitious to convert, and marriage to a Christian does not usually require conversion either. Moreover, in most American and European cities, Jews do not need to become Christians to gain social acceptance. Moreover, Jews now have our own political state.

Moreover, within our religion we see renewal, with new prayer styles and huge creativity in the arts and literature on Jewish themes. So many barriers have fallen, and the choices within Judaism are so much more varied than previously.

This happy conjuncture provokes a question: have the plausible reasons to convert and intermarry diminished? I wonder: did the converts who populate the pages of How Jews Became Germans have better historical excuses to depart Judaism than do Jews in our era? This is not an idle question, because in spite of all the advantages Jews today can enjoy as Jews, the exodus from Judaism continues. Today intermarriage, not conversion, is a central measure of radical assimilation. A wider trend is a withdrawal of all connection to anything Jewish. In this broader sense, the proportion of Jews “leaving” the community is undoubtedly higher today than was the case in the days of the Mendelssohns.

We have some good explanations for this state of affairs. The social cost of radical assimilation is nil. We need not trouble ourselves with lies and secrets, because boundaries now are more fluid and intermarriage rarely leads to ostracism from one’s family.

Some explain high intermarriage statistics by Jews of both genders by reference to our low morale as an ethnic group and a resulting projected self-loathing. Subtle rejection of one’s origins can become decisive when one chooses lifetime mates. Moreover, politics stimulates conflict among Jews. Left and liberal Jewish intellectuals often rebel against our own elites, and we experience so much painful conflict over the policies of our own new Jewish state.

Part of it is the passing out of the post-war era. For decades since 1945, collective shame at the Holocaust and admiration for the Israeli experiment stimulated the loyalty of many Jews. Those ties to Israel are definitely loosening. Defending Israeli policy is becoming more and more difficult, just at the moment when it is urgent to work as Jews to finally end the occupation and achieve a Palestinian state. Many Jews who drift away from tradition fail to find a foothold in a new version of Jewish identity and practice. They may not actually oppose ethnicity per se, indeed they may celebrate the ethnicity of other peoples, just not their own.

In the end, to my mind, the differences between radical assimilation then and now matter more than the sometimes eerie parallels between the past and the present. When I ponder the dilemmas faced by the Jews of early 19th-century Berlin, I feel pity and empathy, not condemnation. Because I understand the difficulties of their times, I forgive them their hypocrisies. In our own time I also understand why some of my own friends and relatives feel weak ties to Jews and Judaism.

After two centuries of struggle, Jews have succeeded in assimilation and integration. Our tragedy in World War Two led directly to the success of the Zionist project. But neither successful assimilation nor a Jewish homeland stem the tide of departing Jews.

Those of us bound by existential commitment to the Jewish people must find ways to re-invent our tradition. We need to write Jewish books and make Jewish movies, and create a hip modern culture outside of religion. We need to find a way to maintain our irony and our atheism and still celebrate folk traditions. We must purify our national state of its injustices. Only then can Israel make the world safer for Jews everywhere. If we fail to deepen the meaning of being Jewish and fail to repair the errors of our state, we risk a reprise of the sad outcome of the Mendelssohn saga.

Deborah Hertz is Wouk Chair in Modern Jewish Studies at the University of California at San Diego and author of How Jews Became Germans (Yale University Press)

    Last updated: 2:44pm, August 19 2008

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